For North Woods artist Gendron Jensen, a bone was never just a bone. Throughout his life, he trekked through the woods looking for animal bones, which he took home to his studio and deftly rendered with pencil on paper.
“The bones are not static to me. Even though the creature is dead, it’s not static. It is animate, active, vibrant, vital, animate beings,” he said in a 2013 documentary about his life titled “Poustinia,” directed by his friend, filmmaker Kristian Berg.
Jensen had five exhibitions at Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis over the years. His drawings are in museum collections across the country, including New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, Minneapolis’ Weisman Art Museum and Duluth’s Tweed Museum. He also collaborated with poet Robert Bly by making drawings for his 1977 book, “This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood.” He received a Minnesota State Arts Board grant in 1986 and a McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship in 1987, and he was an artist-in-residence at Isle Royale National Park in 1994.
Jensen died July 23 at home in Vadito, N.M., after a battle with a rare bone cancer. He was 79.
“The irony of that diagnosis was not lost on him,” said Berg. “He said, ‘All we can do is laugh, Kristian.’ ”
Born in River Falls, Wis., Jensen grew up in Grand Rapids, Minn. Throughout his life he took only two formal art classes, both during two years at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He also spent four years at a Benedictine monastery. From there he moved back to his family’s farmhouse and began his “forest eccentric” wanderings, collecting bones and then meticulously drawing them from what he called “the sacred angle,” which helped him connect to the animal’s soul.
Longtime friend and art historian Robert Silberman recalled how Jensen explained an egret drawing. Rather than drawing the bird head on, he looked through the back of the skull, into where the brain would have been.
“He said something like, ‘This is the sanctuary of the spirit,’ ” Silberman said. “He obviously had this intense religious background, but he still believed in spiritual matters — he was shaped by the Bible, by the church fathers, by other religious writers and thinkers, but he wasn’t part of religious institutions.”
Jensen’s eccentric “North Woods weirdo” bachelor life, as he referred to it, changed dramatically in 1986, when he was introduced to New Mexico-based artist Christine Taylor Patten. Within months, at age 48, Jensen moved to Taos, where the two lived and worked as full-time artists.
They developed a creative ritual they called “wordfast.” “We would wake up and wouldn’t speak until we finished work,” Patten said. “That worked out really well. It really was partially because Gendron is a wonderful storyteller — he speaks well and a lot — and we realized that we were just going to sit and talk every day.”
In New Mexico, Jensen also discovered lithography at the Tamarind Institute of Lithography, where he did more than 30 different projects. But he never veered from his life’s commitment to interpreting bones.
“He really had a connection with the animals and nature,” said Patten. “He didn’t just see the surface. He could feel [them] — and that was one of the things that really impressed me about him as a human — he was constantly going deeper into everything.”
In addition to his wife, Jensen is survived by stepsons Robert, Jonathan, Matthew and Michael Powell; siblings Roberta Baker, Mary Tobey, Steve Jensen, Patricia Jensen, Victoria Madson and Michael Jensen, and three grandchildren. Memorial services will be at Tamarind Institute of Lithography in Albuquerque in mid-October.